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Russian Jews find home at center

By Craig Garretson Post staff reporter

For hundreds of Russian Jews in Cincinnati, the FREE Russian Center is a second home.

FREE stands for Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, and the center at 7685 Reading Road in Roselawn is at the heart of Cincinnati’s growing community of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, who began to arrive in the mid-1980s, with a surge coming after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

“When the center opened, I understood that life goes on,” said Tamara Vinnik, 63, who came to Cincinnati 11 years ago after suffering a stroke in her native Belarus. “It was my second wind.”

“The center is my best life,” said Sarah Rekhtman, 75, who moved to Roselawn from Minsk 10 years ago. “I get up, I cannot wait to come here. Saturday and Sunday are very boring, because the center is closed. I cannot wait for Monday.”

Chabad of Southern Ohio opened the center on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, four years ago. The center draws between 70 and 100 people daily, with up to twice that number on holidays — Jewish, Russian and American.

Vinnik, like many of the recent immigrants, spoke almost no English and knew little about the United States when she arrived here. But she took language and citizenship classes offered through the center and now proudly tells visitors she is an American citizen.

She also knew almost nothing about being Jewish, except that’s what was stamped on her papers.

“Our parents didn’t want anyone to know that we were Jews, so we didn’t learn any of the prayers, we didn’t celebrate any of the holidays,” Vinnik said.

“To be a Jew in Russia was to be a second-rate citizen,” said Luda Kagan, who was an English teacher in Bobruisk, Belarus, before moving to Cincinnati 11 years ago, and is now the Russian Center’s program coordinator.

“My grandfather, in Russia, was jailed at 13 for studying Judaism,” said Rabbi Mendy Kalmanson. “It was very difficult. Some practiced in secret, but many didn’t know any of the rituals associated with the religion until they came to this country. We have some men who are getting circumcised at the age of 70 or 80 because they weren’t allowed to have this done as children in Russia.”

“`Jew’ was stamped on your ID card, and that could be a very big problem if you wanted to advance,” Kagan said. “Many people kept it hidden. Here, we have nothing to hide. You can practice your religion if you want to. — People are so happy just to be able to celebrate the holidays without being afraid.”

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